The Boston Celtics continue to follow in the path of the Oklahoma City Thunder, as each underdog in the conference finals has moved to take control of the series. Boston did its part last night with a 94-90 win in Miami to put them within one game of the NBA Finals, a development nothing short of stunning to anyone who followed the Celtics for the first half of the regular season or even the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Kevin Garnett was superb last night with 26 points and 11 rebounds. And while Paul Pierce’s overall numbers were not efficient—6-of-19 shooting, he hit several big shots in the second half including a three-pointer in the face of LeBron James that gave the C’s a 90-86 lead.
But it’s really Miami’s offense that I look at as far as an overall key to the game. The Heat are not going to beat the Celtics shooting over the top, yet they launched 26 treys, making only seven. Some of this bad luck—Mario Challmes, a genuinely good three-point shooter went 1-for-5. But LeBron James went 2-for-6. To give you the perspective of a Boston fan, when I see LeBron or Wade take a three, I immediately think “good defensive possession.”
That’s not to say they can’t hit the shot—James buried a big one in Game 4 and Wade came within one bounce of doing the same with one that could have won that game. But at the end of the day, if the Heat win this series, I want them to do it going over the top. If they shoot the ball and win, more power to them. Because, as ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy is correctly harping on, Wade and James are at their most effective going to the basket. With Avery Bradley injured, the Celtics have no real defensive stopper on the perimeter and if nothing else, drives to the basket can create foul trouble with Garnett.
So with help from a cooperative Miami offense, the Celtics won because the held the Heat just under 40 percent shooting and can now clinch the East on Thursday night in Game 6.
Before we get to Boston, we have to go to Oklahoma City tonight. The Thunder being one home win from the Finals isn’t as surprising as the Celtics, but the Thunder had a more respected and hotter opponent to go through in San Antonio. Tonight’s game is about Tony Parker. If the Spur guard can get back into the flow of the offense, hitting his shot and creating looks for Manu Ginobli from downtown and Tim Duncan in the blocks, San Antonio can certainly win. Head coach Gregg Popovich was correct to point out that if his team can’t win one game on the road they don’t deserve to be champions anyway. By this level of the postseason, no team should count on sweeping four at home, so while San Antonio would surely have preferred to avoid this do-or-die spot, they are still in the same position a realistic person would have placed them at the start of the series—needing to win one on the road.
San Antonio’s the opposite of Miami. We know the Heat can bring it and win because of their defensive ability, but they fade in and out and there’s questions about the intangibles. There’s no question marks about the effort and mental intensity the Spurs will bring tonight, but we’ve seen nothing in these playoffs and nothing in this series that suggest San Antonio can deliver a lockdown defensive effort—i.e., holding OkC to sub-40 percent shooting from the floor. That’s why Parker is going to have to play the game of his life tonight.